Israeli airlines strike over “Open Skies” plan

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s three airlines went on strike Sunday over a proposed “Open Skies” deal with the European Union that union workers say jeopardizes their jobs and could even cause the local airline industry to collapse.

EL AL, Arkia and Israir stopped their outbound flights from Israel early Sunday morning. The strike does not affect flights by international carriers.

A spokeswoman for EL AL, Israel’s national carrier, said of 22 flights planned for Sunday, 14 were brought forward before the strike began and eight were canceled. She said the strike affected hundreds of passengers. Travelers were given the option to transfer to other flights or get their money back, she said. She requested anonymity in line with company policy.

Some tourists stuck at the airport said they had alternate flights, but they were facing long delays.

Travelers with Israir on domestic flights to Eilat, Israel’s Red Sea resort, were provided with buses.

The Open Skies agreement would reduce restrictions on European carriers for using Israeli airspace, increasing competition. It would expand the number of flights between Israel and European countries and allow Israel to become a layover hub. Now it is a final stop.

The Israeli Cabinet was set to vote on the deal later in the day. Hundreds of union workers protested outside the Cabinet meeting, despite unseasonably rainy weather. Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said officers arrested eight protesters for “causing a public disturbance.”

Critics say that Israel’s small fleet along with its high security costs would hinder it from competing with larger international airlines.

Ofer Eini, head of the powerful Histadrut labor union, told Israel Radio that he favors open skies, but the deal needs to be amended to secure local jobs. He said the deal could cause local airlines to collapse and warned that thousands of jobs are at risk.

He said the debate should be postponed by a month to improve the proposal’s terms and make sure jobs are safe. He indicated that the strike could be broadened if the deal is approved Sunday.

Transport Minister Yisrael Katz told Israel Radio that he expected the proposal to be approved. He said the deal would benefit the economy by increasing tourism and reducing ticket prices.

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